Erik Paul was quick to answer government questions about where his software development company was located or how many employees it had. But when the requests of the United States Census Bureau approached the company’s finances, the general manager hesitated.
“When you start asking financial questions, I get a little squirrelly,” said Paul, of Orlando, Florida, who recently responded online to the 2022 Economic Census.
It’s a problem the Census Bureau and other federal agencies are grappling with as privacy concerns rise and online scams proliferate, driving down survey response rates over the past decade. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem by disrupting in-person follow-up visits.
Low response rates introduce bias because wealthier and more educated households are more likely to respond to surveys, which affects the accuracy of the data that demographers, planners, businesses and government leaders rely on. rely on to allocate resources.
Poll skepticism has grown so much that the Federal Trade Commission released a consumer survey this month. alert reassure the public that American Community Surveyone of the Census Bureau’s most vital tools, is legitimate.
The ACS is the bureau’s largest survey and asks questions on more than 40 topics ranging from income, internet access, rent, disabilities and language spoken at home. Along with the census, it helps determine how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is allocated each year, where schools are built and the location of new housing developments, among other things.
The mistrust is understandable, according to the FTC alert, but the information sought serves a vital public purpose.
“The ACS is a legitimate survey to collect information used to make decisions about how federal funding is spent in your community,” the FTC said in the alert posted on its website.
Skepticism can be difficult to dispel. It persists even among those tasked with protecting the public from identity theft and helping them stay safe online.
In the comments section of the Federal Trade Commission website, Cherie Aschenbrenner responded to the consumer alert, writing: 20 pages of them! CERTAINLY NOT!!!!”
Aschenbrenner is an elder services officer with the Elgin, Illinois, police department. Part of his responsibility is to warn seniors about potential scams.
In an email, she said her comment was a personal opinion and she didn’t want to elaborate.
“Probably not in my best interest, professionally,” she said.
Declining response rates can be blamed on survey fatigue, consumers suffer from things like answering questions when purchasing products, as well as privacy issues and the time it takes to answer questions. Surveys are also reaching fewer people due to spam filters, caller ID and doorbell cameras, said Douglas Williams, senior research survey methodologist at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“What’s most unique about the last decade, other than COVID, is the magnitude of the decline,” Williams said. “It’s hard to pinpoint a specific reason or cause, but technology is a likely candidate.”
Federal statistical agencies have tried sending advance and follow-up notices, making follow-up calls and visiting households that don’t respond. They also allow respondents to respond via different modes, such as the Internet, mail or telephone. Some even have offered money for answers on how much people earn.
Officials are also looking at other data sources, such as administrative records collected by government agencies like the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service. They also seek to capture and aggregate in real time financial transactions, such as soft drink purchases at a grocery store. Details are still being worked out on this, but will include privacy protections preventing any particular purchase from being tied to an individual consumer.
The Census Bureau, which performs over 130 surveys and related programs each year, is already taking steps to use more administrative records. This month, the bureau offered to use existing records of property square footage instead of asking about it on the American Community Survey. It also examines how to take advantage of other sources of housing information.
The bureau’s surveys cover all sorts of topics, including retail spending, housing costs, school system finances and how people use their time.
Relying more on administrative records can free up resources so more effort can be put into trying to reach hard-to-count populations, such as immigrants, rural residents and people of color, said Census Bureau Director Robert Santos.
These populations can be difficult to count due to language barriers, lack of internet access, distrust of government, or because individuals are simply hard to locate. But people risk losing resources if they are not counted or interviewed.
The 2020 census was the first time in the once-a-decade national tally that administrative records were used to fill in the gaps for households with missing information. A post-count evaluation that surveyed a portion of the population and compared those results with census counts showed that information from the Social Security Administration and IRS was more accurate than polling neighbors or homeowners. the traditional method used when a household does not respond. .
“Why can’t we more quickly rely on administrative records that have proven capable of counting a large portion of our population?” Santos asked. “It saves money.”